Woodman Returns (Woody Allen)

ART_woody032505.jpgAt the end of Woody Allen’s “Melinda and Melinda,” I sat in my seat stunned: Woody Allen had actually made a movie I liked — a good movie that had something to say about life and literature. It felt like a long time since I’d enjoyed one of his films.

Many years ago, when Allen seemed intent on making ponderous paeans to Ingmar Bergman, I suggested he be strapped into a chair and forced to watch “Sullivan’s Travels” until he got the message: There’s no shame in being entertaining. “Melinda and Melinda” is Woody Allen’s meditation on this very subject.

The setup is simple: A group of friends are at dinner, when one starts to recount an incident. There are two playwrights present — one an author of dramas, the other of comedies. In the incident, which involves a woman named Melinda, each sees potential grist for their mill — the movie plays out both scenarios.

In typical Woody Allen fashion, this takes place in good restaurants and well-appointed New York apartments. In the end, we are left to consider how often the events in our lives can be cast as a tragedy or a comedy — it all depends on how you look at it, and how you tell the story.

Many critics have already weighed in “Melinda and Melinda” and found it wanting. Yet I, despite a few awkward moments of dialogue and acting (the inevitable Woody Allen neurotic imitation), found myself charmed. Allen is working in a Lubitsch mode, using Vilmos Zsigmond as his cinematographer to create a warm palette, an intimate world where ambition, love and betrayal intersect.

After the screening, I went home and looked up Allen’s film credits. In my mind, Allen hadn’t made a good film since “Annie Hall” and “Manhattan.”

But reviewing his oeuvre to date, I was surprised by how many of his more recent films I had liked: Some, like “Hannah and Her Sisters,” “Zelig” and “Broadway Danny Rose” were quite good; others, such as “Bullets Over Broadway” and “Mighty Aphrodite” and the underrated “Manhattan Murder Mystery,” may have been slight, but they were fun, and others still, like “Crimes and Misdemeanors” and “Deconstructing Harry,” could pass for great. Even “Sweet and Lowdown” was buoyed by great performances by Sean Penn and Samantha Morton.

On the other hand, “Small Time Crooks,” “Curse of the Jade Scorpion” and “Celebrity” were films so odiferous they seemed to indicate a nadir. Still, in light of all the good work, I wondered: Why was I fixated on the stinkers? Why did a new Woody Allen film no longer feel like an important cultural event? What exactly was my Woody Allen problem?

Maybe it’s hard for any moviemaker to remain relevant over a 40-year career. But in Allen’s case, part of the problem — it goes without saying — has to do with the Woodman himself.

At the beginning of his career, Allen created a character, an underdog, that everyone could root for. He wasn’t handsome, he had glasses and stringy hair, he wasn’t strong or athletic, he was neurotic in the extreme, and nervous and clumsy in both action and his way of speaking. And he had trouble getting a date (most famously in “Annie Hall,” when he failed at picking up a girl who was planning to commit suicide the next night).

But he was smart, wily, charming and his aggressive anger at his betters was strangely endearing. In the end, in his movies, he got the girl and then had to decide if he really wanted what he had got. In a young Woody Allen this was appealing.

However, as we watch ourselves and our fellow travelers age, behavior that appears charming in our 20s or even early 30s can seem pathological and disturbing in someone in their late 30s, 40s or 50s. With Allen, there was always a gap between his on-screen persona and his self.

In reality, Allen was no 98-pound weakling — he was a good athlete, a rabid sports fan, an autodidact who lived on the Upper East Side, wore fine clothes and was politically more nuanced than his films would lead you to believe. As for his private life, he seemed to have serial monogamy down pat — until all hell broke loose with l’affaire Soon-Yi.

Once Allen’s private life became public, and sordid details and allegations filled the air like confetti on New Year’s Eve, it was no longer possible to see him on screen and suspend disbelief. His defense — that he was following his heart — did not make him more appealing.

And he had another problem: He was getting older. Harrison Ford and Michael Douglas may date women half their age, but most viewers are uncomfortable seeing older men on screen in romantic scenes. Just as after a certain age, the face looking back in the mirror is not the one we see when we close our eyes, so, too, we prefer our romantic film leads to stay, in the words of the Bobster, forever young.

This put Allen in a bind: If he appeared in a romantic role, viewers became uncomfortable; however, if he cast a young actor to substitute for the “Woody Allen” character, such as Jason Biggs, the performance inevitably foundered. Woody wrote for Woody, and no one, it seemed, could play him, even himself.

Many years ago, I found myself at Michael’s Pub in New York watching Woody Allen playing clarinet with his Dixieland jazz band. As the band was about to break, I made my way to the men’s room. I was standing at the urinal, when suddenly, I noticed that someone was standing next to me. It was Woody Allen.

We had a moment where we locked eyes, and I said, “How’s it going?” Trust me, all I expected was a head nod, if that.

Instead, Allen launched into a short diatribe — explaining that doing something over and over again on the same night was sometimes more about compulsion than enjoyment. “It’s not as much fun as it looks,” he concluded.

For the last 40 years, Woody Allen has made one or two films a year — usually identified as “Woody Allen Fall Project” or “Woody Allen Spring Project.” I think we can surmise that the making of these movies has, at times, involved more compulsion than enjoyment

But sometimes if you do something long enough, you get a second wind. Look at the career of Phillip Roth. Or Dylan, who claims in his recent “Chronicles” that after decades of being lost, he once again found a way to play his music and create his sound. And with “Melinda and Melinda,” it seems Allen has found his way back to filmmaking.

As for Allen himself, turns out Soon-Yi Previn was not Lolita. Turns out she’s Oona O’Neil (as in Charlie Chaplin’s last wife), the woman who domesticated him, made him a family and a family man. (And if you want to see how Soon-Yi kicks his butt, just watch the documentary “Wild Man Blues.”) Allen knows: Things can change, even for those most set in their ways.

Woody Allen will turn 70 this year. He has made an film that asks: Who is responsible for the drama, the disappointment in our lives; who is responsible for the happiness? Is it just a matter of how we tell the story?

In “Melinda and Melinda,” the Woodman is back.